As George Santayana once observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It seems then that, given what’s transpired in Toronto, the city has a remarkably short memory.
After being mercilessly hounded by fans and media alike, Phil Kessel was traded this past summer to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Many in Leafs Nation rejoiced, having shed a player reduced by some to nothing more than an out-of-shape winger with a poor attitude and a monster salary. However, the transaction – the entire situation, really – was eerily similar to another major deal in Leafs history.
Frank Mahovlich was, like Kessel, one of the premier offensive wingers in the National Hockey League. He was, by all accounts, a quiet and reserved individual who, in the words of his legendary – or, in this case, infamous – coach, Punch Imlach, “just wanted to be left alone”.[i] Unfortunately, playing in the fishbowl that is Toronto, solitude was not an option. After winning the Calder Trophy as the best rookie in 1957-58, scoring 20 goals in the process, Mahovlich endured two stagnant years, creating apprehension within a Leafs fan base, who had expected the youngster to develop quickly into a bona fide superstar. Though he finally did break out, his 48 goals during the 1960-61 season were still perceived as a disappointment, given that he did not score in his final 14 games.[ii] He would never again attain such totals as a Maple Leaf, his closest being a 36-goal showing in 1962-63. Vilified by fans, press and his coach alike, not to mention being hospitalised twice for mental health issues,[iii] Mahovlich still averaged 28 goals per season from 1961-62 until his final full season with the Leafs, 1966-67.[iv]
Many took Mahovlich’s long, loping stride for laziness, and his psychiatric treatment for weakness.[v] Mahovlich’s coach for all but his first year in Toronto, Imlach grew tired of his winger’s quirks, regularly mangling the pronunciation of his name[vi] and lambasting him in the media.[vii] And yet, from his first full season as a Leaf until his last, only Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe had more goals than Mahovlich’s 276. His 48 goals in 1960-61 stands as the fourth-best single-season total from that time period. He also sits seventh in playoff goals during that span. His playmaking was superstar-like, as well; he sits ninth in total regular season points during that span – seventh if you look at the playoffs. The man could score, period.
During his time in Toronto, Phil Kessel was portrayed as a lazy, passionless player who had the talent to score goals but didn’t care enough to do it on a consistent basis. He had a notoriously difficult relationship with coach Ron Wilson and was largely blamed for the firing of Wilson’s successor, Randy Carlyle. He was labelled a recluse and a player lacking commitment, and yet was condemned for his occasional outbursts – at the suggestion he is a “coach-killer” and for his criticism of the media’s treatment of his captain, Dion Phaneuf.
Phil Kessel isn’t paid to be sociable. He isn’t paid to have the body of a Greek god. He isn’t, for that matter, paid to be a defensive forward or to take the leadership role of a captain. Phil Kessel is paid to score goals.
Since he joined the Maple Leafs to start the 2009-10 season, Kessel sits fifth in the NHL in goals, with only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry and Rick Nash ahead of Kessel’s 181. He also sits sixteenth in points during that span. He led his team in points for all six of his seasons in Toronto, and in goals for all but this past one. The one time the Leafs did make the playoffs, in 2012-13, Kessel potted 4 goals and 2 assists in 7 games. All this while playing on a perennially mediocre team and being centred most of the time by Tyler Bozak, who, though a good player, has never scored 50 points in a season.[viii] Yes, Kessel, like all goal-scorers, goes cold sometimes, but the man can score, period.
In March of 1968, Mahovlich was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. Seemingly rejuvenated, he bagged a career-high 49 goals the following year, followed by 38 in 1969-70. Partway through another stellar season in 1970-71, Mahovlich was traded again, this time to the Montréal Canadiens. Finishing with 31 goals, Mahovlich then contributed 14 goals and 27 points in 20 playoff games, to help the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup – his fifth, following championships with Toronto in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. Seasons of 43 (and a career-high 96 points), 38 and 31 goals followed, with 1973 bringing another Cup (9 goals and 23 points in 17 playoff games). Frank Mahovlich ended his professional career with a largely productive stint in the World Hockey Association, including seasons of 38 and 34 goals with the Toronto Toros.
Mahovlich’s game, though brilliant in Toronto, scaled new heights once he left the Leafs. Only time will tell if Phil Kessel’s career follows suit. The Pittsburgh Penguins are no doubt salivating at the opportunity to slot him alongside elite centres Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Regardless, Toronto should savour what it had and recognise that being different is acceptable – it is production that matter. And, for six long years, no one produced more than Phil.
[i] (MacFarlane 147)
[ii] (Ulmer 80)
[iii] (McDonell 80)
[iv] Mahovlich’s career began at a time when the NHL season was 70 games long. Pro-rated to today’s 82-game schedule, his yearly average of 28 goals over those seasons becomes 33 per campaign.
[v] (McDonell 80)
[vi] (Ulmer 80)
[vii] (McDonell 80)
[viii] Tyler Bozak battled injuries in 2013-14, finishing with 49 points in 58 games.
McFarlane, Brian. Brian McFarlane’s Original Six: The Leafs. Toronto: Stoddart
Publishing Co. Limited, 1996. Print.
McDonell, Chris. Hockey’s Greatest Stars: Legends and Young Lions. Buffalo: Firefly
Books Ltd., 1999. Print.
Ulmer, Michael. The Hockey News: The Top 100 NHL Players of All Time. Ed. Steve
Dryden. Toronto: Transcontinental Sports Publications, 1997. Print.